What’s in the new laws on “obscene” materials and Critical Race Theory?

Illustration by Brittney Phan

Key Points
  • Kemp is expected to sign three bills into law that regulate educational materials.
  • The laws give parents expanded power to complain about materials they don’t agree with.
  • The laws create procedures to ban books and materials deemed “obscene” or "divisive."

The Gist

Three controversial bills awaiting Gov. Kemp’s signature take aim at “critical race theory” (CRT), banning so-called “divisive concepts,”  giving parents more power to moderate what is taught in public schools and making it easier to ban certain educational materials deemed “obscene.”

What’s Happening

Proponents of the measures say they are “protecting children” and “empowering parents,” but others fear the bills open the door to book bans and classroom censorship and will worsen tensions between parents and teachers amid a fraught culture war over how U.S. history, race, gender, and sexuality are discussed in the classroom.

“We must teach patriotism and that America is good, though not perfect,”  Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller (R—Gainesville) said before a party-line vote last Friday that saw the bill banning the teaching of “divisive concepts” through the Senate. 

“In my lifetime Georgia has advanced from a state that divided white and black citizens through strict racial segregation to a state that could host the Centennial Olympic Games and welcome people of all races, creeds, and colors,” said Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia. “This legislation would deny Georgia’s students the fullness of that story. I want my granddaughter and all Georgia’s schoolchildren to love their country and to love the truth. You can’t love one without the other.”

Among the concepts banned is teaching that “the United States of America is fundamentally racist” or that an individual, due to their race, should “feel anguish, guilt, or any other form of psychological distress.”

 Earlier last week, activists and students wanting to express their opposition to the bill in the Senate Youth and Education committee were prevented from giving public comment. 

The bills, which Kemp appears set to sign into law, put Georgia in the company of 22 other states that are considering or have passed similar laws targeting CRT and educational materials.  

Read the full text of the bills here:

▪           Parental Bill of Rights: HB 1178

▪           Divisive Concepts legislation: HB 1084

▪           Obscene Materials: SB 226

Why It Matters

Modeled after similar legislation that was first passed in Florida, the Kemp-endorsed “Parental Bill of Rights” states that parents have the right to review all classroom materials and curricula, opt-out of sex education, and have the right to object to their child’s image being used without consent. These rights already are protected under existing laws and policies; however, the law goes further and forces local school districts to codify a process for parents to object to classroom materials they don’t like. 

Educators and school administrators have raised concerns over how the parental objection process, along with the complaint process established by the “obscene materials” legislation, would burden and grow school bureaucracy.  

PEN America, a literature and human rights nonprofit that advocates for free expression, describes these bills as "educational gag orders," and a report published by the organization Thursday shows that Georgia is a national leader in book bans. Since July 2021 there have been 1,586 book bans in 86 school districts across 26 states. The report found that four in ten bans relate to political pressure exerted in just eight school districts across Texas, South Carolina, and Georgia.

Already, the controversial banning of books from school curricula elsewhere in the country, including Pulitzer-prize winners “Beloved” by Toni Morrison and “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale” by Art Spiegelman, has drawn concern for what may be in store for Georgia, which has a fraught history of state-sanctioned book banning.

What do they actually do?

Proponents of the divisive concepts legislation say the bill seeks to protect students from sinister ideologies, with conservative groups like the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) hailing it as combating “Marxist critical race theory.”  

“We want to ensure that race isn’t something that’s used to pit children against each other,” State Rep. Will Wade (R–Dawsonville), a sponsor of the divisive concepts legislation, said while presenting the bill to Senators last week. Pressed by senators on concerns the bill would chill classroom discussion and free speech, Wade repeatedly drew attention to language in the bill that affirmed First Amendment rights. Moments later, students, teachers, and others who had come to speak to voice opposition to the Senate committee were not allowed to

A lot remains to be seen about how these bills will be enforced and implemented, and questions about their constitutionality have been raised by civil rights and civil liberties organizations.

The “divisive concepts” bill may run afoul of the due-process clause of the 14th amendment, according to the ACLU of Georgia, because it so vaguely defines what a teacher may or may not say about race and racism. 

First Amendment questions are also at the forefront of these laws. The obscenity bill writes into state law a definition for what is “obscene” that mirrors a three-point legal test established by the Supreme Court in the 1973 landmark case Miller v. California

The bill, which failed to pass last year, bans materials deemed “harmful to minors” defined by “that quality of description or representation, in whatever form, of nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse,” when it:  

(1) Taken as a whole, predominantly appeals to the prurient, shameful, or morbid interest of minors;  

(2) Is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable material for minors; and  

(3) Is, when taken as a whole, lacking in serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.”

In fact, it was using this standard that the Forsyth County Board of Education banned eight titles, mostly related to gender, sexuality, and race. They include award-winning books like “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson and “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison.

But Forsyth is far from the only county to have books banned, in fact, some acclaimed Georgia writers have had their books on race banned from schools in their own hometowns.

It also forces local school boards to adopt a policy for complaints and objections to materials to be registered with short deadlines to respond and make decisions based on those complaints. The “parental bill of rights” legislation places a similar burden on school boards. Opponents of the legislation argue it places an undue burden on teachers and administrators and, said Young, the ACLU of Georgia director,  “contributes to a culture of classroom censorship.” 

“SB 226 threatens to chill the open exchange of ideas in Georgia schools,” said Christopher Bruce, political director of the ACLU of Georgia. Also opposed to the bill are the Georgia Library Association, the Georgia Library Media Association, and a number of school board representatives and school principals.

What’s Next?

There’s little doubt that the three bills will be signed into law by Gov. Kemp. It also seems likely they will face legal challenges. 

Local school boards have until August 1, 2022 to implement so-called “complaint resolution” policies under the divisive concepts legislation. The State Board of Education is also required to produce a model policy for local boards by July 1. It is unclear what would happen if school boards refuse to comply with the provisions of the laws. But, parents who are unsatisfied with the decisions of a local board can appeal to the State Board of Education.

In the meantime, critics are concerned that schools and teachers will be overwhelmed by frivolous or unfounded complaints, and that these new laws may make book banning a commonplace occurrence, dictated by the political sensitivities of parents.

Join the Conversation 

What do you want to know about recent legislation to regulate public education and censor certain topics? Share your thoughts/tips by emailing: [email protected] or on Twitter: @alemzs

Want to contact your local state legislator about this issue? Find your legislator here